St. Mary’s Church appears to have been built in the original manorial settlement that became the hamlet of Nonington and it is possible that a chapel had been founded there during the ownership of Oesewalum by at least two abbesses of the Benedictine Abbeys of Southminster [Minster on the Isle of Thanet] from the late eighth century onwards, namely Selethryth and Cwoenthryth respectively. Selethryth was also abbess at the abbay at Lyminge. Both abbey churches were named after St. Mary the Virgin, the same saint to whom the present Nonington church is dedicated.
The abbesses ownership of Oesewalum is almost certainly the origin of Nonington or Nonnington which evolved over the centuries from Nunningitun, as recorded circa 1070, which itself evolved from Nunn-ingtūn. This name for the settlement at Oesewalum would have come from the Old English “nunne”; which itself derived from the Ecclesiastical Latin “nonne”, and “ingtūn”; the nuns farm, village or estate. The prevailing widespread current opinion amongst place name scholars is that “ing” is a singular suffix which, when paired with “tūn”, meaning a farm, village or estate, had an associative function, i.e. “called after”, which in this case is the nuns of the two abbeys.
This use of “ingtūn” as a suffix also appears to date the naming of the settlement at Oesewalum to the late eighth or early ninth centuries as early credible examples of “ingtūn” seem only to begin to appear in Mercia or its West Midlands territories in the second half of the eighth century and do not appear in charter descriptions of estates in Kent until in the late 780’s, around the time that Mercia consolidated its control over the previously independent Kingdom of Kent. This is also the period in which Oesewalum belonged to the abbesses Selethryth and Cwoenthryth.
The manor of Oesewalum would have been administered on behalf of the abbess by a manorial steward and his house would have been the focal point of the settlement and possibly eventually became the site of the chapel that became St. Mary’s Church.
The manor of Oesewalum came into the personal possession of Wulfred, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 825 to 827 and when he bequeathed all his property to Werhard the Priest, his kinsman, he stated that when Werhard died he should in turn bequeath the inherited property to Christ Church Priory and also continue with the charitable bequests that Wulfred had established. In his will drawn up in the 830’s Werhard made the following provisions regarding Oesewalum, written therein as Oesuualun:
“To five paupers at Harrow (Middlesex), five at Otford (Kent), two at Graveney (Kent), seven at Oesuualun (at Nonington) and six in the city of Canterbury (Kent) let enough to eat be given each day as is convenient and over the year let each pauper be given twenty-six pence for clothing”
(The original Latin text was “Apud Hergan .v. pauperes; apud Otteford .v.; apud Cliue .ii.; apud Grauenea .ii.; apud Oesuualun .vii.; in ciuitate Dorobernia .vi. Unicuique detur cotidie ad manducandum quod conuenienter sit satis et per annum cuique pauperi ad uestitum .xxvi. denarii.”).
In order to distribute “enough to eat be given each day as is convenient” to the seven paupers at Oesewalum /Oesuualun the food must have either been brought in from Christchurch Priory or one of its other estates on a regular basis, although not necessarily daily, or there must have been a local source of supply.
Werhard’s will records Oesewalum [Oesuualun] as extending to 10 hides and the revenue Werhard derived from the holding would therefore have been more than able to adequately provide the specified bounty. A hide was the nominal amount of land required to keep a family for a year and was used for taxation. In East Kent a hide would probably have measured some one hundred to one hundred and twenty modern acres, depending on the quality of the land. The daily ration would have to be distributed and the most logical place to distribute this would be the manorial steward’s house, either by the steward or another servant of Christchurch. As it was an ecclesiastical manor this may then have led to a small chapel being established which by the 1070’s had become the origin of the present St. Mary’s Church.
However, it is also possible that any chapel at Nunningtūn pre-dated either Wulfred’s or Christ Church’s possession of the estate, with it having been founded during the ownership of Oesewalum from the late eighth century by the Benedictine Abbeys of Minster on the Isle of Thanet and at Lyminge. If any nuns were actually resident on the estate then there would almost certainly have been a chapel there as the resident nuns would have needed a chapel to enable them to perform their daily prayers and religious observances.
This church is next to an ancient road which linked the abbey at Minster on the Isle of Thanet with the abbey at Lyminge. The first Minster Abbey was built on the site of a church dedicated to St. Mary’s, and opposite to the minster across the now silted up Wantsum Channel was St. Mary the Virgin on Strand Street in Sandwich’s, the town’s oldest church and the site of a lost convent. From Sandwich the road went on through the settlements of Eastry, Nonington, Elham, and Lyminge, all of whose churches are dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin. Lyminge church was jointly dedicated to St. Mary and St. Æthelburh, founder of the abbey there. This ancient road was of some importance into the early twentieth century, the section of road from Nonington to Lyminge and beyond was included in plans to evacuate the inhabitants of Nonington in the event of a German invasion of England during the early part of the First World War, some eleven hundred years later.